09 Mar

Environmentalism is a big buzzword nowadays. Go into a coffee shop, and you’ll see environmentally-friendly water, green-energy gingerbread men–everywhere you look, it seems like someone is telling you a new way that you can help to preserve the environment. And yet, despite our efforts, people all over the world continue to deforest large areas of the Amazon, hunt rare creatures to extinction, and engage in all manner of dangerous and deleterious activity at the expense of Mother Nature.

But the Chatham Islands have been populated by humans for over five hundred years, and despite their tiny area and delicate ecosystem, they remain a largely self-sufficient society. They export fish and lobsters, but as far as their imports go, most are luxuries, not necessities. If they had to, they could survive on their own–as they did for hundreds of years–with no contact with the outside world.

And until Europeans arrived and began commercial fishing, the ecosystem in which they lived remained largely untouched by all this activity. What lessons can we learn from these natives, which could help us more effectively learn to conserve our own resources, and use them effectively?

What They Have to Say

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To hear the locals tell it, everything on the island is self-sufficient. They just don’t have many of the things that characterize life on mainland societies, like parking fines and cell phones. It’s just the way they’re used to living.

They continue to observe quotas in their fishing–despite the high demand for Chatham lobster and cod, especially in New Zealand, they take only a specified amount of each from the ocean each year, to ensure that they do not diminish the overall population.

Additionally, large corporate cultures do not play a role on the island. Most of the fishing is done by independent fishermen who essentially run their own businesses, and sell to the mainland themselves, or through small middle-men companies. While this may make things more expensive and less efficient, it keeps the wheels of production in the hands of people who benefit or detriment based on how well they take care of the land on which they live. If they ruin the environment, they have to live on the land they’ve ruined.

Unique Advantages

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Not all of the Chathams’ unique success in self-sufficiency can be attributed to the innate wisdom of the people who live there. Indeed, for years the islands suffered from commercial fishing and whaling that nearly destroyed the ecosystems on which the islanders depend for their livelihoods.

But they had one thing on their side: Mother Nature.

The islands sit a crossroads of warm and cold ocean currents, that when they meet in the shallow waters off the coast of the Chathams, create what is known as a carbon sink. These conditions make the waters off the Chathams an ideal place for algae to grow, as well as for lobsters and other fish to thrive. Part of the Chathams’ success comes from the fact that they can pull so much fish out of the water without changing the environmental conditions. They literally live in a land of plenty, blessed by nature with all the abundance they need to take care of themselves.


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We have much to learn about what makes the Chatham Islands unique among world cultures. They have preserved very well the traditions that have made them nearly self-sufficient without even trying–much of the islands’ native cultures remain preserved, because large-scale manufacturing and farming were impossible on such small islands.

But the islands present a note of hope. In a world that seems obsessed by growth and progress, we can see here instead the simple joys of a life lived in harmony with nature, one that promotes healthy self-sufficiency and a wholesome way of life.

You know when you feel so passionate about something that you just can’t stop talking about it? You visit somewhere once and fall in love with it forever; I know countless people do it with New York or Paris… but what about somewhere a bit more off the beaten track?

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